Someone has to be the best. At the very least, with any interest or passion I have, there needs to be a favorite. It doesn't mean there aren't others I love, but there is always one that for some reason has something on the others. Ask me who my favorite ballplayer is and there will be no space from the time you ask until the name "Don Mattingly," rolls off my tongue. I love many Yankees a lot, but Donnie Baseball is number one for me. The same is true of wineries, tasting rooms and wine tasting experiences. There are many regions I adore and a ton of wineries doing a terrific job in each of them. But if you ask me what my favorite is, the one that gets me back every time I'm in the area, the answer is Swanson Vineyards. They also happen to make some of my favorite wines in Napa. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case I'm not sure. But I can tell you that if I didn't love the Swanson Wines it wouldn't matter how good the tasting experience was, eventually, I'd get bored. Because let's face it, wine is the reason I'm in Napa to begin with. Swanson Vineyards doesn't have a tasting room per se. What they do have is a facility in front of their Winery known as the Salon. Decadence with a wink is their stock in trade. And believe me they do that as well as it can be done. Tastings are by appointment and come in standard (Jean Lafite) for $30, or reserve (Harvey) for $55. Both tastings are similar in style the difference being the selection of wines being poured. Swanson has three wines that see wide distribution, Pinot Grigio, Alexis (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Merlot their workhorse which represents 2/3 of their production. The bevy of other wines they make, including an entire line of dessert wines (up to 8 at any one time) are mostly aimed at their wine club and tasting guests.
At most eight guests are accommodated at one time for a tasting at Swanson. The moment you arrive and park your car someone will greet you warmly before you reach the gate. More often than not, they come bearing Rosato, their dry Rosé made of Syrah. As you're ushered into the Salon it's like a trip into a good friends home. The Salon is an absolutely gorgeous and serene environment. In the center of it all is a table that looks to be setup for a dinner party. As people arrive they're allowed to settle in and sit at their leisure. At that point the Salonier (host or hostess) will tell you a bit about the winery and take you through the wines on tap for that day. The Harvey tasting which is the one I tend towards usually features 7 wines. Truth be told, they often throw an extra one in during the proceedings if things are rolling. What I mean by that is cross talk and fraternization amongst the guests who have just met, and with the host are both highly encouraged. Great groups inspire more of the host and enthusiastic crews often get a bonus. Each wine has something to pair it with. At my my most recent visits, several were matched with cheeses, one with caviar on a potato chip and one with a signature bon bon. The wines poured and what they're matched with change; however the Merlot and Alexis are almost always part of the mix.
It's been my pleasure to be in the Swanson Salon with just about every size group. That includes with just myself and the host on a quiet winter afternoon and most often as was the case today with a full house. Both experiences are terrific, but when the room is full with the right people as it was today with myself and some lovely folks from North Carolina things reach a higher plane. As I said above, this all wouldn't matter much if the wines weren't excellent, which they most certainly are. Swanson is the largest producer of Estate Merlot in Napa and theirs is one to be reckoned with. It has structure, length and a load of flavor. Having had it over the last decade this wine is always delicious upon release but personally I like it better with about 5 or 6 years of age on it. If you lean towards Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll like the Swanson Merlot. The Chardonnay is hands down my favorite Chardonnay in Napa Valley. The production is tiny and aimed at the wine club; ask nicely and they'll sell you some at the Salon. Other wines such as small production Petite Sirah and Sangiovese are also full flavored expressions of each varietal. I'm a sucker for good Petite Sirah and I always look forward to my shipment from Swanson. The dessert wines are so varied in range and style that they deserve their own article. The Swanson dessert offerings are made of everything from Chardonnay to Petite Sirah; my personal favorite is Angelica which is made from Mission grapes.
If having a great time, making new friends, drinking elegant wines perfectly paired with little morsels to munch on, in a warm, welcoming enviornment isn't your idea of a good time, then by all means don't go to Swanson Vineyards. But if you're like the other 99.9999999% of us then you need to go to Swanson Vineyards Salon. Imagine the liveliest and most memorable dinner party you've ever been to. Now add amazing wine and you might start to get the idea. Like I always tell my friends who are travelling to Napa, "If You've been to Napa Valley but you haven't been to Swanson, you really haven't been to Napa Valley."